How Mandela and S. Africa Were Freed

History often recounts events through the tales of “great men,” but that is rarely the complete story. South Africa’s overturning of white supremacy is a case in point, not just the personal triumph of Nelson Mandela but the victory of a global movement, as Danny Schechter recalls.

By Danny Schechter

This is probably the worst time to write and release a book about one’s involvement in a struggle to free South Africa. It’s a bad time because even as South Africa celebrates its twentieth anniversary as a democracy, there has rarely been more rancor and anger in a land we all wanted to see as a Rainbow nation,  a model for the world because of how it achieved a relatively peaceful transition from white rule and promoted racial reconciliation.

My new book, When South Africa Called, We Answered: How Solidarity Helped Topple Apartheid about the global solidarity movement  has been published by a Canadian website  and online publication run by Tony Sutton, a former editor of Johannesburg’s classic Drum Magazine, often spoken of as the Life Magazine for the black communities during the glory days of resistance.

South Africa's former President Nelson Mandela.

South Africa’s former President Nelson Mandela.

As I hunt for an American and South Africa publisher,  this  300-pager is available in the PDF format as an e-book and can be downloaded for free at I wrote it and released it quickly, after a serious health scare because I wanted to be sure that the history of the projects I have been associated with over the decades, from the all-star album Sun City” by 58 Artists United Against Apartheid, the TV series “South Africa Now,” and my work with Nelson Mandela whose story I tell in the book, Madiba A to Z: The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela(

As I was writing about Mandela heroic life, I thought there might be value in writing my own story,  too,  by compiling the many essays I wrote alongside the media work I have done about South Africa for decades as a form of solidarity. And I know, as is all too often the case with a lot of my work, the timing may be very problematic if not totally off.

The global anti-apartheid movement is long gone, and now, so is Madiba, the leader who largely inspired it. With all the memorializing, many confess to be “Mandela-ed out.” His life has been feted in print, and on the big screen, most recently by the epic movie, “Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom.”

The press has mostly moved on. In South Africa, the news media is now more focused on the drama of the trial of Oscar Pistorius, South Africa’s high-profile disabled runner accused of intentionally shooting his girlfriend in a tragic and bloody late-night confrontation.

Britain’s The Financial Times, reflecting the interest and interests of its readers,  did send their editor, Lionel Barber, on a 12-day safari to Southern Africa to key in on today’s challenges.

He notes that “twenty years after the end of apartheid [sic, it’s been 24 years] South Africa and its neighboring states, Namibia and Angola,  face a second great struggle for progress, prosperity and a better future for all.”

Barber spent a day on the campaign trail with President Jacob Zuma, observing, “he can jive like a man half his age to the old liberation favorite, Umshini Wami,” (“Bring me my Machine Gun.”) FT doesn’t mention that this is an oft-repeated recycled act for JZ, as he’s known, because he beat that song to death in his first campaign five years ago.

In the end, Barber is upbeat about South Africa’s economy, perhaps because it is still dominated by a multinational privately controlled Mineral Energy Complex, many based in London. “If you believe in Africa,” he writes. “You have to be positive about South Africa.” This is hardly the message of Zuma’s many detractors.

Soon, as the South African election in early May comes into focus, the rest of the world media will descend and give local events their attention for a day or two. They love conflict and this story is perfect,  complete with bitter charges of corruption, defections by long-time supporters of Mandela’s party, the ANC, and frustration in every community as the economy seems unable to eradicate poverty and distribute wealth fairly.

The FT hints at this downside, but features the positive hopes of investors and financiers. The truth is that 20 years after the country’s first multiracial election in which the ANC promised “A Better Life For All,” many there are living worse lives with poverty today as deep as it was then.

It’s not all the fault of South Africans, but reflects a globalized world economy that benefits the 1 percent, far more than the 99 percent, especially in traditionally poor and colonized countries.

At the same time, activists in West have also moved on or moved off this political stage as economic failures erupt in Europe and America, and as young people are stuck in student-debt bubbles, with social for global economic justice movements losing visibility.

Global problems today may be even more serious, with inequality and climate change topping the list, but the sense of widespread moral outrage that fired the anti-apartheid movement seems on the decline.

At Mandela’s funeral, that international movement in a way, a successor to a similar crusade against slavery a century and a half earlier was barely referenced.

The focus was on the utterings of heads of state with a great-men-make-history subtext on display.

Even the ANC as a people’s movement was pushed aside by all the government dictated protocol and media led deification of Mandela by politicians.  Only the aging “Arch,” Desmond Tutu criticized the organizers for not inviting leading whites and activists from abroad.

Even as the event celebrated the history of South Africa’s greatest son and his “long walk to freedom,” it also rewrote history, leaving out the mass global force responsible for generating pressure for sanctions and demands for Mandela and Co.’s freedom.

Perhaps that’s why I felt compelled to write this book, to add my small voice and  the memory of worthy, if relatively,  notwell-remembered contributions to this important history. As been said many times: the past is never past.

South Africans also need to be reminded of the debt they owe to a world that responded to their call for support and stood with them in the dark years. In an interdependent world, that movement played a crucial role. When South African politicians ride the “gravy train,” they are betraying their friends abroad.

Unfortunately, the media that lionizes change-makers from above and ignores movements from below will always downplay that lesson, lest they encourage similar struggles on today’s global issues.

As a friend once told me when I went to South Africa at age 25 to enlist in that then against-all-odds freedom struggle, “it’s not the ship that makes the waves, but the motion on the ocean.”

News Dissector Danny Schechter is a New York based blogger, (, editor of, author of 16 books, and director of more than 30 documentaries, including six with and about Nelson Mandela. Comments to dissector@mediachannel,org.

2 comments for “How Mandela and S. Africa Were Freed

  1. shelly
    May 6, 2014 at 17:25

    There was something at his memorial that wasn’t exactly openly pointed out but it was definitely an undercurrent of feeling, of sorts, on connection with apartheid, and that was the fact that Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t go to South Africa, claiming he couldn’t afford the trip though he could. That right there really pointed to what Israel is doing to the Palestinians, not just an apartheid state, but systematic, multi-generational genocide of the Palestinian people. It did get people to talking, particularly going back to remarks made by Mandela throughout the years about the situation. He was definitely a friend of the Palestinians. Now, we have the very small, but significant, movement beginning in the academic world to boycott anything connected with Israel. Even a native American education group has made a public statement boyvotting Israel. Global movements such as the anti-apartheid movement take quite some time, but I really think this will catch on real fast. I think the best way to go about it is just be blunt with the facts, the truth about Israel and what they REALLY do to Palestinians, such as using chemical weapons like white phosphorus on innocent people, forcing families out of homes and bulldozing over them, using little kids as target practice, etc. People have to be punched in the face about the facts because for so long there’s been this rule of sorts, if you speak out against anything Israel does, even war crimes! You’re anti-Semitic. We have to get people past that and show them it’s the crazies running the country, not the people, and give examples like Hasidic Jews who refuse to.join the military on prunciple though everyone has to serve at some point, all the work people are trying to do to help on the ground,such as placing those whose house buildozed into refugee housing and trying to get ‘humanitarian aid’ like food and such. But naw, I”m problem a little double stare.

  2. Bill Pilgrim
    April 29, 2014 at 22:10

    The true story of Mandela’s release has yet to come out. He wrote about in a private document left with trusted friends. He chose not to talk about it publicly because it was so extraordinary that people would have difficulty believing him.

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